Nov 122014
 

My column in the DNA on October 16th 2014

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” This quote is attributed to the great Albert Einstein in an attempt to explain the Theory of Relativity to someone in a simple and effective manner. And, like most general analogies, this holds true. It is just a few years ago that I joined the media, as a freshly minted graduate student, with stars in her eyes and the belief that the media can be used to bring about social change. And, lo and behold, before I realised it, it has been 20 years. And 20 years later I find myself just as excited about the media landscape as I was all those years ago – it is diverse, it is exciting, and one is working with one of the most interesting audiences in the world. The media in India has changed so rapidly and people have welcomed new technologies and formats with such open arms that it seems like one has managed to cram multiple lifetimes into one.

If you look back at the 20 years, it has been a time of momentous change in the media. The world of Indian television has moved from watching a single channel (Doordarshan) to an explosion of channels that cater to every interest, language, genre and format. The other big move has been attitudinal. India has moved from being a single TV household, where most members of the family congregated to watch their favourite show to being a world with multiple screens and personalised consumption. What is also fascinating about the media landscape is that while in more developed economies we can see the gradual sunset of certain forms of media and other forms of media gradually becoming all encompassing, in India different media seem to be engaged in mutual co-existence and are thriving. Print is doing well in India, as is television, radio, as is digital. The audience has never before had so much choice of content that is available on so many different types of media, for next-to-nothing prices.

Twenty years ago the market scenario was very different. This was before the era of 24-hour channels. There were no dedicated Indian news channels, in fact news was still the sole prerogative of the State broadcaster, Doordarshan. The three broadcasters would air 3-4 hours of original content per day. And, unlike today, where you see wall-to-wall content of a certain kind, television, in those days, would air a plethora of formats and types of content to keep the audiences hooked. The expansion of television media in the last two decades has been organic. At the end of 2014, the Ministry of Information andBroadcasting had given permission for 825 channels to broadcast in India. There are close to 90,000 newspapers in India and most of us have stopped counting the number ofwebsites aimed at Indian audiences.

With this entire diversity and choice, one problem still remains. Who pays for the content? This is a question we grappled with 20 years ago, when technology was still grappling with addressability and the ability to charge the consumer for content. Today we have the technology in place, but are faced with the reality that there is so much free (and good) content in the world, who will pay for the content that you produce? And, this is not just a problem we are facing in India — it seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

For most Indians, we get content at next-to-nothing prices. The cost of content for the consumer on the Internet is the cost of their Internet connection. You are paying for delivery, not for content. If you look at TV, the situation improves marginally. Most households pay between Rs300-500 a month for their cable/DTH connection for 300-400 channels. That is between Re1 and Rs1.50 per channel per month. It doesn’t matter if you only watch 10 of these channels; the fact is that you get them all for what you pay. In contrast, print has the best deal of them all. Most of us pay between Rs90 and Rs150 per month (between Rs3-Rs5 per day) for newspaper subscription.

This is, incidentally, less than the cost of a cutting chai in Mumbai) But given that the cost of producing a single paper is upwards of Rs20 per day, once again the Indian audience is getting a really good deal. In each of these cases, the cost of consumption is very low and approaches zero.

Finally, let us look at the contentious issue of quality — the constant refrain that is heard across the board is that “the quality of content has gone down. The media is pandering to the lowest common denominator”. And, the answer then, as now, is that how do you create ‘quality’ ‘good content’ when people are not willing to pay for it? How do create content that highlights ‘culture’ when people don’t want to watch ‘culture’ and would rather watch the latest item number? Do we, as media, act as arbitrators of media consumption habits or do we give the audience what they want? Do we create content for an audience that doesn’t want ‘good’ content in enough numbers, and doesn’t want to pay for it, when it does? Or do we create content that people will consume no matter what, and let the advertiser pay for the content?

These are interesting questions for which there are no readymade answers. Each media outlet has to make its own choices regarding its options. But, more interesting would be the choices of the audience – if they want quality, they have to pay for it. Conversely, they can consume what is available for free – but those come with no guarantees. The next decade while the media and the audience negotiate over this, will be interesting times.

Sep 262014
 
My column in the DNA, earlier this week
The Times of India’s stand is pretty much the same as that of khap panchayats – she was wearing revealing clothes, therefore she asked for it
  • PTI

Last week, the Times of India, that claims to be the most read English daily in the world, peeked down actor Deepika Padukone‘s dress and put up content titled “OMG – Deepika Padukone’s Cleavage Show”. Ms Padukone, unlike most who grin and bear this sort of intrusion into personal space, hit back in a series of tweets that essentially took the news brand to task, in no uncertain terms.

In a Facebook post that has attracted over 2000 comments and over 150,000 likes (at the time of writing), Ms Padukone says, “I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.”

And then the TOI decided to explain itself: “Deepika, we accept your reel vs real argument, but what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen – while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions? What ‘role’ do you play there? So why the hypocrisy?”

Well, since the old lady of Bori Bundar has asked, I thought I would help them understand the most basic aspect of women’s rights. And that is actually just one word – one simple yet elegant word – consent. Consent, very loosely defined, is permission or assent. Has the person in question said yes? At a second level is a related question, just as equally valid in the context of women’s rights: “Do women have the rights over their own body?” When a woman says no, no matter who she is, does it a) mean yes? And, as importantly, b) is she going to be judged by what else she says when she says no?

It is all very well to say, you are flaunting your body, albeit in a different context and therefore it is all right for us to intrude on your privacy, and use your body to our advantage. But at a very fundamental level, this is pretty much the same argument that we have been hearing from every regressive element in the Indian ecosystem. What the paper and everybody else needs to understand is that it is very clearly a matter of a woman’s right over her body and her consent for anyone else having a right over it.

The response of the TOI on the Deepika Padukone issue occupies the same space as a famous film scene. In the film Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrugan Sinha, Zeenat Aman plays a modern woman who wears a bikini and a sarong at a beach. When ‘eve-teasers’ whistle at her, she complains to the policeman (played by Amitabh Bachchan). His retort is, “Aap aise kapde pehen kar ghar se niklengi toh ladko ke seeti nahi toh kya mandir ki ghantiyaa bajengi?” (if you wear such clothes and leave your home, what do you expect men to do – whistle or ring the temple bell). Today, we can look back at these lines and say regressive, regressive attitude, blaming the woman for violence and the rest. And we would be right. What do you say to the leading English language daily?

It looks like almost three decades later nothing has changed. It is the same argument that is being used. Today, when we talk about women saying no to sex and then being forced, or to being groped, or being whistled at, the same set of counter arguments pop up.  The argument, whether made by a leading English daily or by the head of a khap panchayat, ‘but she was asking for it’ needs to be treated with the same contempt that you would have for a traditionally dressed woman or man, who with the full fire of righteousness, and in an Indian language tells you that girls who don’t cover up their bodies will be prey to rapists If that had been the case, we could be sure that all of us, including the newspaper in question – would have outraged over medieval attitudes and patriarchal behaviour.

This entire argument goes beyond Deepika Padukone and into the space of women and media created perceptions. I would argue that it is not Bollywood or item numbers that demean women, rather it is these sorts of attitudes that do. When a leading newspaper tells ‘you that you flaunt you body, therefore we can peep into your cleavage’ it is far more dangerous than the head of a feudal setup saying something similar. We know we should oppose the latter as it is antediluvian and archaic insofar as its perception of women is concerned. But, what about the former? If the feudal organisations think of women as their property, this treats women as much the same. And frankly, there is not much to choose from between the two ways of seeing women. Except that one is in English and the other is in an Indian language.

Finally,

A ‘roadside romeo’ is lumpen, but a media house peeking down a woman’s cleavage is ‘respectable’.
A khap panchayat that says a woman must be well covered to avoid rape is regressive, and a leading English daily which asks but if you flaunt it anyway, why do we need your consent?
No means no, except when we understand it as yes .

I agree with one point in the TOI article, and that is it reeks of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not the hypocrisy of Ms Padukone, but of the media outlet. When the largest English Language daily in India justifies the invasion of the body of a woman – without consent – you should hardly be surprised that you have a system that justifies rape.

Sep 182014
 

My column for DNA last week

Land Scam. Gas Scam. Spectrum Scam. Water Scam. Coal Scam. Forest Scam. Stamp Paper scam. CWG scam.

Whatever the scam be, at the centre of it, is the ownership, control and distribution of scarce resources and scarcity. And this should hardly be surprising, because most of history has been the quest to conquer and control these scarce resources. Those who control them dominate history; those who fail to control them do not even make it to the footnotes. The more scarce the resource, and the more key it is to the future of a land or an economy, the more likely are people to use tactics that are neither legal nor honourable to usurp that resource and keep everyone away from its bounty. In a different era, might is right would have been the way of establishing control on scarce resources – wars over land, cattle, slaves, cotton, spices, colonies have been fought for less.

However, the 21st century is, allegedly, a more civilised era than centuries past, and humanity has evolved less bloody methods of allocating resources:
a) It could be individual entities that control the resource and therefore control its exploitation and distribution
b) It could be groups or cartels bidding for a resource to exploit and distribute it at a price decided by it
c) It could be the State controlling the resource, its exploitation and distribution
d) It could be a combination of these.

There are four primary reasons why there is scarcity:

  • If there is very little natural occurrence of a resource – for example gold or diamonds are scarce because they don’t occur naturally in great quantities – then optimum allocation is achieved via pricing;
  • If a naturally occurring resource is very tightly controlled – for example marijuana and opium, grow freely in nature but are heavily controlled by most governments – in such a case you use the law to ensure scarcity – because the system believes that it is for ‘greater good’ of humanity;
  • If manmade products, like stamp paper or guns, are very tightly controlled, the former from the perspective of who is the supplier, and the latter form the point of view of both who makes them and who buys them
  • There are too many people consuming that resource – oil would not be a scarce resource if very few people owned vehicles or needed energy.

In each of these cases, scarcity impacts price and availability. There is a premium to be made in bucking the system and creating an underground, illegal, or not so legal route in dealing with these things. if you looked at the 2G scam, it was companies who tried to change the rules so that they were one of the few who took control over a scarce rescource – spectrum; if you look at the Adarsh scam, it was that land is at a premium, especially in South Mumbai, and flats are scarce; and so on. In each case it may be a good idea to understand what is the scarce resource to understand the direction of greed.

At the core of all the scams that we have been witnessing are three very critical, and interlinked, issues:
* Who owns these scarce resources? The ownership of these resources is somewhat ambiguous. Although theoretically, the citizens of India should own all the natural resources that exist within her boundaries, the practise is quite different; the people have very little to say on the allocation of resources or the priority of its use. The Government of India leases out the right to exploit these resources to various corporations – either public holdings or private enterprises – who are supposed to use their expertise to harness these resources for the greater good of society, while still making a profit. The enterprises more or less run these licenses as though they were owners.

* How do you allocate scarce resources? The resources in question – be it land or spectrum, be it drinking water or forest land, be it oil or gas are scarce. Its use by one set of people means less is available for other sets of people. Most of these are not renewable – you can no more grow more spectrum than you can create more petroleum deposits. Are these resources that are nature’s bounty to be split up equally and equitably amongst the people, or do you wait for the market to allocate. And, if the market allocates, how much does the state charge; and finally

* Who benefits the most from the exploitation of the resources – is it, we the people? Is it the corporations? Is it the government?

* And, how do you define profits or measure benefit? Will there be more equitable distribution of resources, so that more people benefit from it? Or should it be measured in terms of the extraordinary profits earned by select few from exploiting scarcity?

It is in this context that we need to look at two of the most important decisions on natural resources that will be taken this month. The first will be the Supreme Court’s decision on the coal scam, and later in the month will be the Government’s decision on the KG basin gas pricing issue. Both are vital in their own way, because both will impact the right of Indians to have affordable energy.

At the core of both lie two simple questions – who owns the natural resources of the nation, and who decides how they should be allocated. Is it the Government who decides what is ‘greater good’ of the nation at large and do all other agendas, including the corporate agenda, get subsumed by this greater good?; or does the government get out of the business of allocation and allow business to choose the most optimum path – even if this optimum path means price fixing cartels, that maximise profits for a few, and a highly improbable trickledown for the rest?

If we assume that the Government needs to act on behalf of the people of the country, and this includes ensuring that the economically and socially marginalised have equitable access to scarce resources; then the decision before the Government is simple. It is also the single most honourable thing to in a situation like this. Cancel all the licenses and start afresh. Let the Supreme Court judgement be the start of a new, transparent and people friendly era of resource allocation that puts the interests of India and Indians above all other interests.

The Supreme Court has declared all the coal licenses to be illegal. There were 218 such licenses allocated of which only 40 are operational, and 6 more are expected to be operational in the near future. While the media and lawyers can debate whether this is judicial overreach or not, the fact remains that the verdict is the best thing that happened to the people of India and its government.

For the Government this is a judiciary sent opportunity to clean up energy production. For coal, they can start with a clean slate and allocate on the basis of the priorities of 2014. They will need to bite the bullet for this, because those who currently own the licenses are powerful industrialists with tremendous clout. And, once they bite the bullet and manage the fallout – maybe the government should have another look at the KG Basin Gas allocations, before they look at pricing. Or maybe the SC can.

Sep 082014
 

I got myself a new camera. Been playing with it. There really hasn’t been time for focused photography.

Mumbai -PCO (1 of 1)

#OnlyinMumbai – can someone sit on stool on a busy alley and behave as though he was at home.

Lonavala - Two Trees bw (1 of 1)

My favorite trees in Lonavala

Lonavala - Two Trees (1 of 1)

My favorite trees, and the western ghats … this is a three minute walk from my home.

Lonavala - orange 2 (1 of 1)

While most of the plants in the garden have put of flowering till the end of the monsoons, this one didn’t.

Lonavala - bare (1 of 1)

This branch always reminded me of a ballet dancer ….

Back to the camera – the first thing that you notice about the Nikon d7000 is that it is not the Olympus e-510. It is atleast twice a heavy (or atleast it feels taht way). This is a quicker camera, works better with both motion and low light scenarios.

But, i need time to shoot.

Sep 082014
 

My column in the dna, last week

 

There are milestones and there are millstones. The former help you in terms of direction, the latter become a weight around your neck dragging you down. Often, the same event is both. And, a 100-day target, in a cranky democratic republic like ours, definitely counts as being both. However, given that this Government, like the last one, has given itself a 100-day target to showcase its achievements, and since their opponents are using the same to ask ‘what achievements’ — it is only natural that the rest of us (including the media) looks at the 100-day milestone. A word of caution here — it is too early to judge achievements, that will take at least a year, if not more. However, what can be looked at, and evaluated, are broad policy outlines.

The Good 100 days 

Focus on sanitation: The single most neglected area in India, sanitation, has been brought out from the shadows that it has lurked in, to the forefront of conversation. Given that more homes in India have TV sets than toilets, and given that the lack of toilets and adequate sanitation lead to a variety of issues from diseases to sexual assaults, the Narendra Modi-led government in general, and Modi in particular, have done a good job in getting this talked about. What would be good is if, in addition to building toilets, there is a certain emphasis on training people to use toilets (as opposed to the world outside), and understanding basic hygiene.

Make sons accountable: For this columnist, the single most interesting portion of thePrime Minister’s Independence Day speech was him saying “Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but has any parent ever dared to ask their son where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are?” This was in the context of the growing violence against women – especially sexual violence. The focus on personal and parental responsibility was timely. In a society where it is the woman who has to bear the brunt of rape — both as an act of sexual violence, and in its aftermath of being judged by society — this was a welcome statement.

Calling off talks with Pakistan: While it is important to talk to Pakistan, it is equally important that the powers in Pakistan understand that they cannot arbitrarily break all norms of civilised behaviour, all rules of bilateral understanding, and still expect that India behaves as though nothing untoward has taken place. It is essential that the message that India is displeased is conveyed, and calling off the talks is a good way of getting the message across.

Scrapping the Empowered Group of Ministers: One would assume that a minister is empowered to take decisions. Therefore, to have an empowered group of ministers to take the same decisions that an individual minister is supposed to make is inexplicable. Why would you need a group to take a decision that a single individual would make? The Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the EGoM, hopefully, would mean greater ownership and accountability for individual ministers, as well as hurrying up the decision-making process.

The not-so-good 100 days
Scrapping the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats
: While development is vital for India, it cannot be at the expense of our natural heritage. This is something that we hold in trust for future generations, and we cannot destroy it in the name of development. It is imperative that the Narendra Modi government reconsiders its decision on not just scrapping the Gadgil report, but also the way fragile ecosystems are conserved. While there will be tremendous corporate pressure on the government, it needs to remember that if the ecological balance is disturbed, no one will make profits. China is paying the price of its development sans ecological perspective, India need not do the same. Being environment friendly, acting at one with nature, is as much a part of our civilisational ethos as language or ‘culture’.

Governmental silence: The Government of India is not just the government of its supporters but of all the people of India. While the party may feel persecuted by, real or imagined, left-liberal domination of the media, it still needs to communicate. Reading ministry press releases is neither interesting nor illuminative. The government’s silence looks less like strategy and more like petulance. In fact, often it appears about as communicative as UPA II. So advice to the government and ministers is — stop sulking, and start communicating. And no, Twitter and Facebook accounts are not enough. Your communication needs to be more inclusive and interactive.
Part-time defence minister: We have Pakistan to the west; China to the north; and the armed forces of India with rapidly aging equipment. There are issues of recruitments, corruption, infrastructure and more plaguing the armed forces. One would think it required someone who gives full time attention to these, rather than someone who juggles another ministry, especially one as taxing as Finance.

Price rise: It is hurting. When staple food becomes a luxury, when basic vegetables become unaffordable, and when the response is the same as the earlier government, then you have a problem on your hands. This government has no more been able to put a lid on inflation, than the previous government had. And, it’s method of communicating this has been as effective as the last government.

The current Government of India looks more decisive than the previous one. It has made the correct noises on a whole range of issues from Indian manufacturing to boosting tourism, from health care to education, from smart cities to cleaning up rivers. But, right now these are just words. To be able to evaluate the impact of these, these policies need to be implemented and progress needs to be monitored over a substantial time frame. For now, all that can be said is that it is a good start. But, unless the aam janta gets to see very rapid changes and benefits, their disenchantment will be equally rapid.